Chapter Sixteen: Insufficient Data

Selena frowned at the screen in front of her, looking for connections.

The display was one of her favorite creations. It looked like an ordinary flat-screen, but it had full computing power behind it: a solid state hard drive of her own design and a full terabyte of RAM. It functioned as a touch screen for her, but to anyone else, it was just a cheap TV.

Across the screen, she’d scattered data of all sorts: news reports, videos, the Lartech files, and pretty much everything she knew or suspected about their powers. She’d created files on her own ability and her friends, recording observations on what they could do, the side effects, when and how they’d discovered their powers. She’d been adding anything that might be related: the lab projects, the Resson field, even Ivy’s superhero research.

1601Sparks crackled across her fingertips as she swiped across the surface, rearranging

files and images on her virtual whiteboard. There were so many questions, so many hints, but she couldn’t quite piece them together in the right order. It was like a puzzle with too many pieces missing, and they weren’t necessarily from the same picture.

The Resson field, for instance. Aaron sent her a cryptic text in the middle of the night, muddled from whatever painkillers he’d taken for his brain trauma, asking her to look into it. Well, there wasn’t all that much to look at. She’d grabbed as much data as she could during the quarantine, but it had been a bad connection, and some of it had been corrupted, and…well… she was good at machines, and she was good at math. But she wasn’t a physicist. Whatever Dr. Haley had been doing went way way beyond her comprehension.

If the field had caused their powers, she couldn’t see how. The first instance had been recorded decades before they’d even been born. Dr. Haley did say there had been another burst, but it was after they’d started showing signs of powers. And it didn’t explain why it would affect a bunch of kids and no one else. And it definitely didn’t explain Molly.

Unless…

She shifted back through the data, searching for the right piece. And there it was. Matthew Lakefield, Molly’s grandfather. He’d worked at Lartech for years, until his wife’s illness had made him retire. After that he’d been a mechanic, pretty much until he died. The last thing he’d worked on was the Avalon project. Based on her dates, it started four months after the first Resson field was recorded.

She pulled the two folders up together on the screen. Were they related? Her digging on Mathew Lakefield had turned up surprisingly little data. And as much as she’d argued against it, the group had voted to limit what they told Molly. She’d have to figure out how to ask questions without arousing her suspicions. What. A pain.

With a sigh, she grabbed her phone and dialed Aaron’s number.

It took three tries for him to answer.

What?” he grumbled into the phone. His voice sounded slurred and groggy.

“Hello to you, too.” She propped the phone between her shoulder and ear, and went back to sorting data.

“I was sleeping.”

“I got your text and it made no sense. Clarification, please?”

Over the phone came a burst of static and rustling, accompanied by a couple of groans. “Mmm… about Avalon? It’s important, that’s all.” He was quiet for a long time. Long enough that Selena considered hanging up and calling again to wake him up. Then he yawned loudly. “Why aren’t you at school? It’s almost eight.”

“I’m skipping.” Selena frowned at the screen. “School is a waste of my time, and I’ve got work to do.”

“You can’t skip school.” He still sounded half asleep.

You are.”

“I have a medical excuse.”

“So? A few keystrokes and I can have one too.”

He sighed. “That’s wrong, Selena.”

She glared at the screen in front of her, wanting to argue with him. But swiped her hand across it and the data vanished, replaced by some morning talk show about accessorizing hair clips. Another swipe and the screen went blank. “Fine. Get it together before three.”

“Mmmmhh,” he mumbled. “Don’t forget to get those files to Ivy.”

“I’ve got it on a thumb drive,” she said. “Enjoy your “medical excuse.’” She pocketed the phone, shook out her hair and checked it in the mirror. Not awful, but she had some serious static cling. She touched the metal rim of the mirror to ground herself, and siphoned off her extra charge. There. She snagged a couple of earrings from her dresser, and her bag from the corner. Complete waste of time, she thought, but Aaron was right. She had to at least pretend.

* * * * *

“I am so glad this day is over,” Brennan said, shrugging on his jacket as he walked out of school. Ms. Pearce had made him take it off in the hall, again, even though it didn’t technically break any rules. She just thought he was weird. “I thought I was going to fall asleep in math this afternoon.”

“It’s Melroy’s voice,” Lucia said. “It’s so dull it’s hypnotic.” She popped a stick of gum in her mouth. “At least it’s Friday. We can just sleep the rest of the afternoon.”

“If only,” he said. “I’ve have practice this afternoon.”

“So skip it,” she said.

“I can’t skip it. Mom will want to know why, and—”

“Ugh. Fine. You can go do that, and I’ll just sleep in your bed until you’re done. And maybe until tomorrow morning.”

“You have to go home at some point,” he said, looking past her toward the group of girls turning the corner. Selena was in their midst, trying to discreetly make eye contact with him. He sighed and shifted his backpack higher on one shoulder.

“Like Sonia would even miss me,” Lucia said. “You know I didn’t even see her last night? She worked until eleven and left before five this morning. I got a note saying ‘thanks for dinner!’ with a smiley face and grocery money. Sometimes I feel like we only communicate through emoticons.”

“Yeah,” he said, watching as Selena left the herd and wandered toward him. Arms full of books and phone out in one hand, waltzing across the courtyard like she was oblivious to everything around her. Lucia noticed her a second later, and started to say something, but Brennan just shook his head. “Just go with it,” he muttered, and stepped forward just as she was passing him.

Her shoulder knocked into his. Not really that hard, but she made a scene out of it anyway. Books everywhere, phone in the air.

“Oh my god, Brennan,” she said, brushing off her clothes with disgust. “Can you not go one day without knocking someone over? You are such a pain.”

He didn’t have to pretend to be annoyed. He stooped and snatched her books off the ground. “Maybe you should actually look around when you walk,” he said, shoving them at her.

In the middle of the exchange, she palmed something into his hand and said in a low voice: “Give that to Ivy.”

“You could have given it to me without being a bitch,” he muttered back.

She gave him a cold smile which was probably only mostly pretense. “I do have appearances to maintain.” In a louder voice, she said: “You better not have messed up my phone.” Another dramatic hair flip, and she stalked off.

Brennan sighed and looked at what she’d passed him. A flash drive.  Pink with a fluffy kitty keychain. That had to be intentional. He shoved it in his pocket. “Come on,” he said. Lucia was glowering after Selena, probably debating how to punish her. “Come on,” he said. “You know it’s not worth it.”

That earned him a brief glare of his own, but she relented. “All right, fine. But I’m going to get her back later.”

* * * * *

She waited until they were in the car to bring up the drive.

“So what’s on it? Did Ivy con Sel into doing her math homework? You know, I’ve tried that and gotten nowhere.”

He leaned back against the sun-heated seats and soaked in the sweltering heat. It didn’t last long; as soon as he started the car, Lucia turned the AC on full blast. “It’s the security footage she took from the lab,” he said.

“And she’s giving it to Ivy? Why? Why did you even tell her about it?”

“Hey, it wasn’t my idea,” he said. “Aaron wants to see if she can sketch the guy from the lab. He thinks he can give her details but the video should get her started.”  He shifted the vents to blow air toward Lucia instead of his hands. “Does it bother you that much? She can be pretty useful when she wants to.”

“I’m just not comfortable with how many people know our secret.” She gave him a grudging shrug. “But Ivy’s solid.”

“You worried about Molly?” Brennan asked. “Did you pick up on something today?”

Lucia considered the question for a minute and then shrugged. “She seemed normal today. A little stressed, but we all are. Tired, a little irritable. Nothing like what I felt before.”

“ So what does that mean?”

“Well, nothing, really,” Lucia said. “You can’t take a person’s emotional state on one morning and derive a whole thesis out of it.” She leaned back, snapping her gum again while Brennan started the engine. “Honestly, sometimes she seems like one of us, and sometimes… she seems like something else.”

She scratched absently at her arm again, and Brennan noticed for the first time she was wearing long sleeves over her shirt. Now that he was paying attention, he noticed the faint, reddish patches over her neck and face.

“You okay?” he asked.

“My arms itch,” she said. “Stupid steam scalded half my skin off.”

“Is it that bad?” he said. “I thought I’d gotten you out fast enough.”

“Chill, Bren. I was exaggerating. I still have most of my skin.”

“Let me see it?”

She rolled her eyes, but she still slipped off the shirt, holding her arm out for Brennan to see. The skin was mottled red with burns, and a few of her blisters had started to peel. He winced.

“I put some stuff on it; took a cold shower. It helped,” she said, shrugging. “It’s not your fault,” she added, probably sensing his guilt mixed with the sympathy.

“Here.” He reached over and laid both hands against her arm. The skin radiated heat, but it was more like a sunburn than a fever. He smoothed his hand over the blistered skin, drawing heat from her shoulder down to her wrist.

“Does that help?” he asked.

“So much,” she said. “You would not believe how much they itch.”

“I’ve been burned a few times,” Brennan said. “At least you covered your head in time. Better your arms than your face.”

“I guess I should thank Selena for those earpieces. Gave me enough warning to duck.” She shivered a little, and wriggled back into her shirt. “Still, I wish you could have saved me without frying half the skin off my arms.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have—”

“Don’t,” she said, pressing her hand against his face. “Stop. It was not your fault.”

“But I—”

“You were amazing,” she said.

“Molly was the one who—”

You were the one who pulled me out of there.” Her fingers curled in his hair.

1602

“You were amazing,” she whispered, and leaned over to kiss him. And maybe it was her power bleeding over, or just the way she felt, but it felt so good he lost himself in it, and forgot about the lab, the danger, even how ungodly tired he was, until a rapping at the windshield jolted him out of it.

He turned to see Ivy, leaning against the car door. “Are y’all going to be done soon, or should I just walk home?”

Brennan glowered at her and shoved the door open so she could scramble into the backseat. She buckled in and leaned back. “Did Selena get you the—”

He fished the pink flash drive out of his pocket and tossed it to her.

“Sweet,” Ivy said. She tucked it into the front pocket of her backpack and settled back, popping her headphones in her ears. “You can keep going if you want; I brought a book. Just don’t set the car on fire.”

“That only happened once,” Brennan said. Lucia grinned at him, and leaned back in her seat, stretching her arms up with a cat-like yawn. The blast from the air conditioning ruffled through her long, loose hair, and even with the blisters on her arms and the fading bruise on her cheek, she looked beautiful. Go home and sleep until morning? There were worse ways to get in trouble.

* * * * *

Much later, the phone woke him up in the dark. Brennan fumbled around for it before realizing it was wedged between the mattress and the headboard. He answered it without bothering to focus on the name, and fell back against the pillow.

“Hello?” he said, yawning.

“Hey, we need to talk,” Aaron said.

“In the middle of the night?”

“Um. It’s 8:30.”

Frowning, Brennan pulled away from the phone to look at the clock. “Oh.” That explained why he was lying on top of the covers with his jeans still on. As the brain fog started to clear, he remembered laying down to take a nap…He looked over to see Lucia laying on a pile of pillows, one arm flung over her face. He nudged her, and she snored loudly in return. “Sorry, I was asleep,” he told Aaron. “What do you need?”

“I had a visit last night from our friend at the lab,” he said.

Brennan sat bolt upright, sleepiness forgotten. “What? Are you okay? Did he threaten you?”

“I’m fine,” Aaron said. “But we need to meet. Are you free tomorrow?”

“Uh…yeah, I think so. Until dinner, anyway.”

“Can you try to get Lucia? I tried to call her, but she’s not answering.”

Brennan glanced over at Lucia again. Even from here, he could feel the warmth flooding off of her. It was so enticing he almost laid back down. He swung his legs over the bed instead. “I should be able to get her,” he said.

“Good. Oh, and could you bring Ivy? I need to work on that sketch.”

“Yeah, just let me know when you’re heading over.” He reached for the sweater slung over his desk chair and dragged it on over his shirt. “Are you sure this is a good idea? Looking for this guy? He’s dangerous.”

“Really? Thanks, Captain Obvious,” Aaron said.

“I’m serious. This isn’t like—”

“I know it isn’t. Believe me,” Aaron said.  “But it doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea. He’s already found us. We can’t just wait around for some random act of violence.” Then he sighed. “Sorry. I’m kind of irritable.”

“I’ll talk to Ivy,” Brennan said. “And Lucia. Uh… does everyone include Molly?”

Aaron hesitated long enough that he started to wonder if the call had disconnected. “I think it should,” he said. “This involves her, too.” There was a hint of a question in it, like he was looking for reassurance.

“Yeah, it does,” he said.

“Okay. See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah.” Brennan started to hang up the phone, but hesitated. “Hey, listen. Don’t go anywhere alone for a while. Just in case.”

“Yeah, sure,” Aaron said, but he sounded amused instead of concerned. “That’s not likely to happen anyway, the way everyone’s hovering over me.”

“I mean it. Be careful.”

“I will,” he said, and hung up. Brennan frowned at the phone for a second, wishing he could trust Aaron to not do something reckless. He’d been so restless lately, and it seemed like Molly’s presence only made it worse.

Brennan glanced at Lucia again, tempted to wake her, but if she’d slept through that whole conversation, she deserved a little more rest. He went down the hall to find Ivy.

She was wide awake, and at work. As always, her desk was a wreck—covered in candy wrappers, scraps of paper and colored pencils. On top of the usual mess, she’d sorted photographs and printouts into messy piles on the desk and floor. Her computer screen showed a series of videos. Brennan recognized the scenes from the lab–all during their illicit incursion into the quarantine.

“Geez, Ivy,” he said. “If you’re going to look at that stuff, you should lock your door or something. If Mom or Dad comes in and sees that—”

“Relax, it’s fine,” Ivy said. She pressed a couple of keys on her keyboard and a new window popped up, showing her sketches for the comic book she was writing. “See? Just working on the book.”

Brennan shut the door firmly behind him. And locked it. “What are you doing with all this stuff out?” he asked, shifting through the piles of paper on her desk. He recognized it as her stash of “research”: unexplainable feats of strength, weird weather patterns and ghost sightings. Anything that could indicate powers at play. She and Aaron had obsessed over them for two years. He’d thought they were over it until Azure showed up and started the cycle of obsession all over again.

“Checking to see if any of these match the guy from the lab,” she said. “It’s not likely, but I figured I’d check. Y’know, I haven’t looked at this in a while. Some good story fodder here.” She turned back to the computer.

“Uh huh,” he said, picking up a black and white printout of a blurry photograph. “Are you stalking Molly now, too?” he said, squinting at it.

“What?” Ivy glanced over, a look of confusion on her face.. She took the picture, frowning at it. “Oh… I just… It’s just research,” she said, still frowning. She stared at the picture a minute longer, and put it on top of the pile. “These videos are really bad quality,” she said. “If Aaron can’t give me some better details, he can forget about a sketch.”

“I think he’ll be able to help.” Brennan told her about his conversation, and the meeting the next day.

“But I had plans tomorrow,” Ivy said. “With Logan.”

“I’ll make it up to you,” Brennan said.

Ivy glared at him. “Dishes for a month,” she said.

“Two weeks,” Brennan said.

“Three,” she said. “I like him, Brennan.”

“Fine,” he said. “Two weeks and the bathroom.”

His sister stared him down for a long minute, and then nodded, sticking out her hand to shake on it. “Deal.” Ivy turned back to her computer and gave him a cursory wave. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have things to do.”

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